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Schools aim for restaurant-style service in lunchrooms

August 25th, 2014 2:12 pm by Lauren Roth

Schools aim for restaurant-style service in lunchrooms

Orlando Sentinel

(MCT)

No one would confuse the cafeteria line at Crystal Lake Elementary in Seminole County with a restaurant. But that hasn't stopped the school from aiming for a "restaurant-quality" experience.

That includes using black plastic ware and serving split-top rolls, freshly cut fruits and vegetables and new menu items such as scones and flatbread pizzas. The lunch lines even have greeters.

"We're here to serve," said Chad Wilsky, food-services director for Seminole schools. "These guests, they don't have to dine with us. They have choices. Our parents have choices."

He and staffers deliberately use words such as "guests" to emphasize their customer focus.

The spotlight on quality comes as school districts move toward healthier, fresher fare. Some of that is mandatory — including state requirements that snacks meet nutritional standards — but other changes are voluntary.

Some schools, for example, regularly host recipe competitions and student taste tests as a way to develop and select food.

New items in Orange this year include sweet-potato cakes, homemade hummus, falafel and veggie-sandwich options. Fruits and vegetables will be offered at breakfast, no longer just lunch, and the district is expanding the use of mobile carts so students can eat breakfast without going to the cafeteria.

The district, 10th-largest in the country, serves 29.5 million meals a year.

Richard Miles, coordinator of nutrition and wellness for Seminole schools, said it helps that many districts across Florida are pushing suppliers to increase healthier fare.

At Crystal Lake last week, Mackenzie Pugh, 9, surveyed the colorful rows of freshly prepared fruits and vegetables. She chose an orange, partially sliced open, and red seedless grapes on the vine. She grabbed chocolate milk, and then popped a few grapes in her mouth as she waited for a staffer to squirt ketchup next to the chicken bites on her tray.

"Make sure you get a fruit, honey. Or a vegetable," dining-service manager Pam Smith told students as they passed. Most students picked something — an apple, a tray of sliced carrots or celery, a plastic cup of peaches.

"I like that they have oranges," said Mackenzie, a fifth-grader whose favorite fruits — oranges, grapes and strawberries — have all been served at her school this week. She said the chicken bites are one of the best items.

But she raised her eyebrows when asked whether the food was as good as in a restaurant. She described her favorite, Panda Express, as "gourmet" compared with school lunches.

Even so, school meals have come a long way, Wilsky asserted.

Many parents remember mystery meats and limp, overcooked vegetables from their school days and don't realize school meals have changed, he said.

That's why Seminole began displaying meals at school open houses this year.

"I love seeing all the vegetable cups — the carrots and celery with ranch dressing. I would eat that," said Melissa Pugh, Mackenzie's mother, who visited the school cafeteria last week. "They are doing a really good job making the kids aware of healthy choices and providing them as well."

Fifth-grader Ashley Flay, 10, said the offerings are nothing like the yucky cafeteria food she sees stereotyped on TV shows. "It's really not bad. It's good food. It's made for you."

In Lake County, complying with the new guidelines means that 20-ounce drinks are out at the middle-school level, replaced by 12-ounce beverages. Students also will see more low-calorie, low-fat snacks such as whole-grain Goldfish crackers and chips, as well as low-fat ice cream. Items such as pizza also will be served less often.

That doesn't mean standbys such as pizza, chicken nuggets and chocolate milk are gone entirely, however.

But their formulas have changed. Seminole's nuggets are coated in whole-grain breading, the district's salads blend iceberg lettuce with romaine and spinach, and the chocolate milk has dropped 10 grams of sugar per serving from 28 grams. Even the pizza crusts are whole-grain.

In Osceola, the pizza features chicken pepperoni, low-fat cheese and a whole-grain crust. The district also is introducing an entre-size salad, encouraging students to eat more fruits and incorporating whole grains into bread, pasta and rice. A new muffin-and-yogurt platter with fresh fruit has been popular with elementary students, spokeswoman Dana Schafer said.

And with the new snack guidelines, most of the dessert options are more healthful, such as ice pops made with fruit juices. The rainbow pops and sour-apple pops are particularly popular, Smith said.

The changes have been gradual, but students don't seem to be complaining.

"They are going to find something they enjoy, and they're going to take that. Our waste is not significant," Wilsky said. "We're doing it better and better every year."

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